Are More Women Getting STEM Degrees?

For the past several years, efforts have been under way to recruit more women into the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. I recently saw an interesting graph showing the percentage of bachelor's degrees conferred to women in the US, and I wondered if I could tweak that graph a bit to focus on the STEM majors.

But before we get started on the technical graphs, here's a fun 'graduation' photo. This is a picture of my friend Margie, graduating from Hurricanes U. She's a huge Carolina Hurricanes hockey fan, and has earned the nickname "Clever Sign Chick" for the signs she holds up during the games. So, of course, when the Hurricanes offered a special training camp, she was head of the class! 

And now, let's get technical. Here's a snapshot of Randy Olson's original graph. It's difficult to show so many lines on a graph without it looking like spaghetti, but I think he did a pretty good job. In particular, I like how each line is labeled, and the colors of the labels match the colors of the lines (eliminating the need for a color legend).

Randy showed the data source URL in a footnote, but it still took a bit of digging to determine exactly which table(s) on the NCES (National Center for Education Statistics) website he had used. I finally determined that the data was in the '325.x' tables, and I downloaded the Excel spreadsheets and wrote some SAS code to import them (... 17 separate tables, which each had the data in slightly different ranges of cells). The basic plot was easy, but the tricky part was annotating the text labels for each line, making the label colors match the line colors, and adjusting the y-position of the labels so they didn't overlap.

And here's my new version of the plot:

Here's a list of the changes I made:

  • I wanted to emphasize the STEM fields, therefore I used darker colors for those lines, and lighter colors for the other lines.
  • To make the STEM lines even easier to identify, I also added plot markers to those lines.
  • I made my axis go to 100%, rather than just 90%.
  • I made the 50% reference line darker and bolder, since that's the important balance point.
  • I mention in the footnote exactly which set of NCES tables the data came from.
  • I used the full descriptive text from the tables as the line labels, rather than shortening the text (the shortened names in the original graph could be a little misleading. For example, I used "Public Administration and Social Services" rather than just "Public Administration").
  • And I got the latest data, so I was able to extend the graph out to 2015 (instead of just 2010).

Were there any surprises or insights you were able to derive from this graph? The biggest surprise for me was the "Computer and Information Sciences" line. I assumed that the percentage of women in this field had been increasing, but apparently it peaked in the mid-1980s and has decreased by about 50% since then.

Feel free to leave a comment with your own observations, insights, questions pertaining to the graph, and women in STEM fields!

This content was reposted from the SAS Learning Post. Go there to view the original.

Robert Allison, The Graph Guy!, SAS

Robert Allison has worked at SAS for more than 20 years and is perhaps the foremost expert in creating custom graphs using SAS/GRAPH. His educational background is in computer science, and he holds a BS, MS, and PhD from North Carolina State University. He is the author of several conference papers, has won a few graphic competitions, and has written a book calledSAS/GRAPH: Beyond the Basics.

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Re: Hard to believe
  • 7/30/2017 5:48:19 PM

One of the great approaches today to dealing with differences in the workplace, and in society, is understanding that "tolerance" is not enough. It's not enough to tolerate someone sitting next to you in the office or in school. You must get to know them on a human, individual level to appreciate that their are like you, no matter how they look, no matter their differences. Until that barrier is crossed, women will face inequality.

Re: Hard to believe
  • 7/30/2017 4:30:52 PM

The challenges for women in the tech world isn't confined only to to that industry. Such mistreatment are well Chronicled in factories and offices going back awhile now. I believe that the unequal and hostile work environment of women is societal bases playing out in the workplace. We would like to believe that talent and education is enough to drive careers, but sadly not entirely true. We are still social animals and act out as we are groomed collectively. Women having access and being encouraged to STEM education is the critical first big step.

Re: Hard to believe
  • 7/19/2017 4:35:14 PM

Having worked in tech and business it is not an easy road for women. For those that stay, it is based on pure love of what they do, the work/life balance is challenging the underlying glass ceiling still exists and the boys' network is alive and well. For those that succeed they are stubborn, passionate and willing to show the detractors that they are capable and will succeed. It is not a profession for those that need hand holding or mentoring as neither exists sadly in many STEM field. We lament the lack of women but little is being done to really change the culture that promotes men centered environment.

Good News
  • 7/19/2017 9:19:17 AM

Women in Defense is offering STEM scholarships.

Re: Hard to believe
  • 7/17/2017 9:27:51 PM

It depends on whether these decisions will be socially driven or driven by economics.

Re: Hard to believe
  • 7/17/2017 9:13:23 PM

@lq4ym I don't think that is a factor in their not studying for the field, though it can be a factor in their not staying in it. 

Re: Hard to believe
  • 7/17/2017 8:52:33 PM

Those stories coming out in the news recently about women in startups and technology are certainly shocking. And of course some of the offenders have been forced to leave after the bad behavior became an issue. One might wondder if women might well be discouraged in seeking STEM education our of fear of ending up in those situations.

Re: Hard to believe
  • 7/17/2017 7:44:49 PM

Great point, @Ariella... women taking a class doesn't necessarily translate to them majoring in computer science or even going to work in the field. 

The sexual harrassment reports surfacing in the wake of Uber's CEO firing have made it clear hostile workplaces are not just an Uber-only problem.

Re: Hard to believe
  • 7/17/2017 1:13:02 PM

That makes more sense. It really is hard for women in technology- especially startups.I have seen women treated poorly and many have told me stories.


Re: Hard to believe
  • 7/17/2017 11:10:52 AM

@tomsg it's not really just about what they major in but what they stick with. One of the blogs on another site included  this observation: "Women drop out of tech careers at a 50% higher rate than men do, said Karen Holtzblatt, founder of the Women in Tech Retention League and CEO of InContext Design 

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